Beaver Tales, Colonialism and Science Pub Nights. Part 2: Beaver fur makes nice hats especially after indigenous people have worn it for 15 months.

In my last post I wrote about the various biomes in North America and how Indigenous groups were adapted to the local conditions. It’s safe to say that we know very little about the thousands of years pre-contact in North America especially from the perspective of Indigenous people themselves. There are tons of accounts of European colonialism and the history of Europe is accessible to us all although it may not be as objective as some people think. The question is: Who gets into the history books? Why, kings and Queens, Knights, Bishops, and Popes. You’d think it was a giant chess game!

That said, and getting back to beaver, the trade in beaver fur was largely concentrated north of the 49th Parallel and in most cases, north of the 55th up to the barren lands of the Canadian Shield. In the south, beaver fur was of lighter and poorer quality that in the north and beaver were nowhere near as abundant. On the eastern seaboard, beaver were soon wiped out in the Hudson-Mohawk River system. By the mid-17th Century, the beaver were virtually wiped out along the eastern shores of North America they were so heavily trapped.

The hunt for beaver makes for a fantastic story because it is nowhere near as straightforward as it might seem. The image of a beaver graces our nickel in honour of its role in the creation of the country. See the beaver on the nickel:

It has a rightful place there, I believe, but it would be just as right to have it grace a one-pound British note or a Euro because the trade in beaver fur had as much of an impact on European economic development as it had in North America. During the 17th Century in Britain the mercantile capitalist elite and the gentry were able to capture the British government (we sometimes call it the Cromwellian Revolution) but the newly-created industrial capitalist class was just getting a full head of steam, and employed over fifty percent of the working population. The situation was not the same in France where the Absolutist Monarchy maintained a much higher grip on economic activity. The need in North America for European trade goods like knives, kettles, awls, guns and steel traps created a huge impetus for European industrial development and innovation. That impetus was the result of the North American Indigenous peoples’ desire or craving for tools that made their lives so much easier than they had been previously.

So, the beaver fur most sought after by European hat makers was called castor gras d’hiver or fat winter beaver which is also called coat beaver. It was fur that had been worn by indigenous people for fifteen to eighteen months, fur on the inside which tended to loosen the long guard hair leaving the soft, velvety ‘wool’. As I noted before, the early fur trade was incidental to the fishery on the St. Lawrence. Even in 1534 as Jacques Cartier sailed into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Indigenes, probably Abenaki and other coastal groups he encountered, offered him coat beaver that they waved over their heads stuck on long poles. He traded with them in 1535 and 1541 meaning that they already had knowledge of the European market for beaver pelts before Cartier even showed up. No doubt Basque and other European fishing boats had landed on the coast and sailors had recognized the value of the clothes that the Indigenes wore and traded some European tools for a few skins. However, the fishers had no organization to exploit the fur trade so it stayed incidental to the fishery until well into the next century after the arrival of Samuel de Champlain in 1602 when he brought organization to the trade and build Québec in 1608. The Montagnais who lived north of the St. Lawrence traded with the Europeans at Tadoussac, having come down the Saguenay River fully clothed and leaving naked after trading the very clothes off their backs for European trade goods.

Another grade of beaver fur was called castor sec or parchment beaver. It was beaver that had not been worn but prepared immediately after the animal was killed, dried and readied for sale. Hat makers in Europe used both types of fur when making beaver hats like the ones below:

This photo is in the public domain.

Beaver hats were, for the most part, felted hats. That means that the beaver ‘wool’ was shaved from the beaver skin and then felted by a process of applying heat and moisture which causes the hairs to mat together to create a smooth ‘cloth’. Beaver hats in these styles were popular from 1550 until 1850 or so when Chinese silk became the fabric of choice in the making of hats for the well-to-do.*Incidentally, there is a Eurasian beaver (castor fiber) but it had been virtually wiped out in Europe by the mid-sixteenth century. The Russians were manufacturers of beaver hats too and they turned to new sources when the Eurasian beaver disappeared from their territories due to indiscriminate hunting and trapping. The Russian invasion of Siberia was largely due to the fur trade. My focus here, though, is on North America.

In my next post I trace the growth of the North American Fur trade as it spread across what we now know as Canada and its transformation of Indigenous groups into hunters and trappers or middlemen for the European trade.

*The story of the European hat making industry and market is intriguing in itself. Many of the hat makers were in Spain and Portugal but the hats in many grades were sold all over Europe although at times they fell out of favour and the North American Fur trade faltered.

Beaver Tales, Colonialism and Science Pub Nights

So, the other day I made a thirty minute presentation to a science pub night on beavers and colonialism in the Masonic Hall in Cumberland, British Columbia. Yes, I did that. I was one of four presenters and I was the only one to talk about dead beavers. All the others talked about beavers in wetlands, their role in water retention, their dams, their family lives and their newer reputation as troublemakers, especially for municipal infrastructure, highways, farmers and others.

My job was to talk about the role of beaver in colonialism. My emphasis was on how the political structure we call Canada came about as a result of the spread of Western Civilization into and across North America. It’s a sordid tale of violence, intrigue, greed, adventure, religious proselytization, and general ineptitude wrapped around a cloak of rapidly spreading mercantile and industrial capitalist expansion and the attractiveness of new European tools and technology for the indigenous populations of North America. The globalization we experience today had its major early impetus in 16th Century European economics and politics. Everyone in Europe and North America experienced massive transformation during the period 1500 to 1900 AD but, I daresay, it’s possible to say that about virtually every period in human history (if it’s even reasonable to talk about ‘periods’ of human history, it being a process rather than a series of ‘periods’). What makes this four hundred year timeframe distinctive is how life and work in North America were transformed. It’s impossible to outline here how the various indigenous groups in North America experienced that transformation because there were (and still are) a number of distinctive biomes that demanded of the indigenous groups various and different forms of work and life. For instance, in the eastern part of North America at the time of contact, the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) were agriculturalists, who along with their northern cousins, the Wendat (Huron) and other groups to the west of them, grew corn, squash, and beans along with, in some cases, tobacco and other crops. The indigenous people of the prairies had very different lifestyles based largely on the bison herds that roamed all over the prairie regions of the continent. The northern indigenous peoples such as the Assiniboine, the Cree and the Chipewyan (Dene) had lifestyles based on hunting and trapping beaver, fox, wolf, and especially moose (although it’s true that some Cree lived on the prairies, some in the parkland and some in the boreal forest). This kind of lifestyle extends from just north of the Great Lakes to the Rocky Mountains on a diagonal from south in Manitoba to northern British Columbia and the Yukon. The lifestyle is dependent on wetlands, rivers, lakes, forests of birch and maple. The diet of forest peoples is largely animal protein from a large variety of fur-bearing animals and fish.

The wetlands of ‘Canada’.

The West Coast indigenous groups were, like the Haudenosaunee, longhouse dwellers because of their relatively sedentary lives based on a relatively stable source of animal protein, berries and other types of edible plants, roots and mushrooms. The northerly indigenous groups were not agriculturalists, but the ones in what is now California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico were. The Hopi especially lived in Pueblo villages and practiced agriculture much like the Haudenosaunee. The Apache, Comanche and Sioux lived in teepees, portable and easily erected. That said, getting the poles for teepee construction required yearly displacements to more forested areas. Living in villages and settlements requires very different social institutions than are required in forest dwelling indigenous groups.

Beaver fur, the staple product par excellence that drove the colonial exploitation of the northern half of North America was preceded in its importance to Europeans only by cod fish and other marine species both mammalian and fish. Hundreds of European fishing vessels occupied the Grand Banks off Newfoundland and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the 16th Century. The beaver trade was incidental to the fishery for most of 16th Century and it wasn’t until Samuel de Champlain arrived in ‘Canada’ in 1602 that the beaver trade became a force in its own right.

Next post will deal with the importance of beaver for the indigenous populations around the St. Lawrence and on the eastern seaboard in the 17th Century. The hunt for beaver was to change forever the lives of the peoples of North America and those of Western Europe creating Canada along the way in its pre-war configuration.